Today I thought I’d say a bit about veganism.
I’ve been vegan for about many years now. I was coming to the end of a long day of casting and reading the bones, and having asked them “does string theory bring anything new to the question of scientific realism vs. instrumentalism?” and “is it true that the deconstruction is inextricable not only from the text, but from the self?”, I asked, on a whim, “should I stop eating meat?” and got the clearest and least directionless answer for a while – “yes”.
So naturally I stopped. I was still living at home at the time, and my parents were a little anxious, but I reassured them: “don’t worry, I’m just going to be vegetarian, not vegan or anything.” Then, two weeks later, it occurred to me that maybe I should do a bone-reading on that, so I asked the bones “should I stop eating animal products in general?” and got an equally clear “yes”. So that was that.
At the time I was fairly apolitical. I had a certain interest in politics, but every question seemed so obscure, and to have two or more equally emotive teams emphasising their emphasis emphatically. Whenever I tried to get the answers to political questions out of the bones, they were consistently directionless. Veganism was therefore probably the first strong ‘position’ I held, the first ‘political identity’ I took on.
That’s not quite true. I was also, at the same point in my youth (and ever since) an atheist (indeed a moderately staunch one). The reason why these two identities emerged so early is, I think, the same: they are both fairly external to human discourse. Neither animals nor God can participate in human arguments – there’s no process of their feelings and beliefs and desires struggling against those of others in a fiddly, complex, ever-shifting sequence of concrete debates and contests.
Instead, they are either pushed way down, to the point of being entirely disregarded and ignored, or they are elevated way up, to the point of being obeyed regardless of what mortals say. They thus form a sort of macrocosm of all hierarchy: the absolute superior, the absolute inferior, and ‘us’ in the middle, sometimes one and sometimes the other.
Although I didn’t really see it at the time, my youthful opinions on these subjects prefigured my later more complete views. Brought out of the confusing world of humans and their verbally-articulated debates, with their rationalisations and copeting egos and red herrings, animal rights/religion posed the question of hierarchy in pure form. Since my mind likes pure and abstracted questions, I swiftly found myself rejecting God (in that manner typical of young atheists who don’t seem to so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike him) and affirming the moral worth of animals, which prefigured a (supposedly) mature politics centred around the theme of dismantling hierarchy and empowering the oppressed.
Of course there is a difference between ‘veganism’ and ‘animal liberation’: one is a belief and one is a diet, and most other political beliefs don’t come with associated diets. Most of the time I think that’s a good thing – diets (or other forms of ‘lifestyle’) are usually a bit silly.And certainly many people get into veganism as precisely that sort of inward-looking ‘lifestyle’ thing. Sociologically, there’s a continuum between veg*anism and various ‘healthy’ diets like raw-foodism etc., but from my perspective they’re entirely different things: the bones didn’t tell me to be vegan for any reason to do with ‘health’, or indeed for anything about me. I’m a vegan because I don’t think anybody else should be on my plate.
Of course, it’s often pointed out to me that pretty much every product I buy is harming someone: through unnecessary airmiles or packaging, through the exploitation of third-world labour, through the exploitation of first-world labour, etc. And that’s true, and it’s why my veganism is not as strict as it could be (trace amounts, might have put some butter in there but can’t remember, cooked next to meat, whatever). But I think this is another point where we need to distinguish different approaches.
If my political orientation was simply to “be the change you want to see in the world”, as Mohandas Gandhi said, then I might found myself pushed down that line of ‘abstaining’ from all evil and unjust systems, which sadly would mean abstaining from most of human society. But it’s not. While there’s some value in that Gandhi saying, I think there’s just as much wrong with it, or at least with the ways it’s often interpreted.
Because again, it’s not really about me. The oppressed of the world don’t really care about the state of my soul. The first difference I see between veganism and ‘general abstentionism’ is that what I abstain from in veganism is a particular system which is rotten to its very absolute foundations: there is no ‘just’ or ‘fair’ way to treat animals as a financial resource to be created, grown, and disposed of. The very first step – I have power and you are my property – is a wrong step.
By contrast, something like ‘capitalism’ is just a particular form of ‘human economy’, and I can’t ‘avoid involvement with’ capitalism, as either a worker or a consumer, without avoiding involvement with human economy (indeed, nor really could any of the people whose labour is being exploited for my benefit). And I like human economy- it could be great. It doesn’t need to be gotten rid of, it needs to be revolutionised from within.
The second difference is that I think veganism isn’t just about me but is a potentially ‘abolitionist’ decision. Because of the previous point, because a distinction between what products are “good” and which are “bad” is quite easy to make (compared to keeping tabs on labour agreements with different clothing companies), because it’s a decision that can be held to for a lifetime, it is possible to envisage a growth of the vegan population over time that serves (in tandem with other methods) to generate and sustain a movement towards actually doing away with the industries of animal exploitation. It’s not showing much sign of happening at the moment but the possibility is real.
By contrast, who really thinks capitalism will ever be done away with or even severely impaired by consumer boycotts? For a start, that’s a case where the greatest power lies with producers, not consumers, while food animals, because they lack organisation, are effectively powerless. But even setting that aside: the amount of effort needed to keep the information-infrastructure going, on who’s being boycotted now and who’s not, who’s a slightly less exploitative company and who’s not, whether any effect has been had or not, etc. will make it pretty much impossible to get substantial numbers of people behind it for any substantial length of time.
Also, who do the boycotters then go and buy from? Unless you tell people to just stop consuming, or unless a powerful ‘alternative economy’ has already been set up, people will just go from buying from one capitalist to buying from another. Whereas with veganism, even if the plant-based food you buy instead comes from a Multi-National Consortiu of Motherfuckers, an essential difference can still be maintained between “managing an essentially ok production process (like people in a factory making electronics) in an oppressive and horrible way”, and “managing an essentially horrible production process”.
Anyway, that’s the story of my veganism, and of how it differs both from health-food puritanism and ‘ethical food’ puritanism.